From Chelsea to Springfield, Massachusetts public housing chiefs face little accountability
Globe review finds a system vulnerable to incompetence, indolence, and worse
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Easton’s former housing director spent hours at work sending flirtatious e-mails to various men, then resigned before an audit last June showed she had badly neglected the apartment buildings she was supposed to manage. By then, Susan Horner had a new job: teaching other housing officials how to improve their performance.
The housing director in Winchester has a second full-time job as a courthouse lawyer, requiring him to be away from the housing authority for 31.5 hours a week the last three years. When the law office learned about Joseph M. Lally’s second job, it froze his pay and launched an audit of his work. But Winchester officials did nothing, saying they’re satisfied Lally gets his town work done on nights and weekends.
Peabody’s former housing director resigned after TV cameras caught him spending much of the work week in local sports bars and social clubs in 2009. Nonetheless, the housing authority board let Frank Splaine stay on the payroll for five extra months, helping to boost his pension, and gave him a $27,000 severance check to boot.
Housing directors face remarkably little accountability for their work managing housing for more than 300,000 elderly and low-income people in Massachusetts, a Boston Globe investigation has found. Though the federal and state governments pump $1.2 billion a year into local housing budgets, oversight comes from local boards mainly chosen by mayors or in little-noticed elections. All too often, no one is sharply focused on how money — or time — is spent.
In the worst cases, tenants pay the price for inattentive or indifferent management, enduring leaky roofs, bad heating, rodent infestation, and other hardships.
“Housing authorities are off the books, as far as state and local scrutiny is concerned,” said Barbara Sard, a former senior policy adviser to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development now with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank in Washington.
The scandal in Chelsea, where former housing director Michael E. McLaughlin is suspected of diverting millions from renovation funds to pay for his lavish salary and other perks, may be the most serious breach of trust in public housing since 2004, when Springfield housing director Raymond Asselin and four members of his family went to prison for running a $1 million system of bribes and kickbacks.
The scandals in both cities speak to the vulnerability of housing authorities to fraud and abuse, sometimes taking advantage of regulators who seem to be looking the other way. Until the Globe revealed McLaughlin’s $360,000 salary in November 2011, he consistently earned “high performer” awards from HUD, which entitled him to reduced oversight of his work. The agency showered similar accolades on the Medford Housing Authority under director Robert Covelle, who resigned last spring amid charges that he illegally funneled work to friends and family.
Likewise, Horner, the former Easton housing director, had been named Massachusetts “member of the year” by the state’s public housing officials in 2009, the year before she resigned after her racy work-time e-mails were revealed. HUD officials had raised concerns about Horner’s poor leadership as early as 2005, but did little more than ask her to submit improvement plans — something she apparently never did.
An Easton housing board member, Thomas Downey, said the state was no help either. Downey said he tried for years to get the state Department of Housing and Community Development to pay attention to the festering problems, including Horner’s frequent absences and the deteriorating condition of the apartments. But he couldn’t even persuade state officials to appoint a state representative to the five-member Easton board as the law requires, thus denying the board the potential tie-breaking vote on firing Horner. The position remained vacant for seven years.
“They knew” what a bad job Horner was doing, said Downey, who was elected to the Easton board in 2007. “It went on for a long time before I began making noise . . . The state knew and allowed it to go on.”
Contacted at her home, Horner declined to comment.
But state officials say they have limited influence over housing directors, who owe more allegiance to their local boards and political sponsors than to state bureaucrats and often regard themselves as political powers in their own right.
McLaughlin, the former Chelsea chief, forged close political ties to Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray, hosting fund-raisers and urging his employees and tenants to attend political events for Murray and Governor Deval Patrick. Now, two grand juries are investigating whether McLaughlin broke the law — Murray himself had to answer questions under oath as part of the state investigation — since housing directors are legally banned from political fund-raising.Continued...